The best place to start is the beginning, unless it is a mystery, then you start at the end. I’m not sure what to call this so let’s start with what is fact and not up for any discussion.
- James Barnes was classmates with Robert E Lee at West Point
- He spent some time in the army and then worked on Railroads
- When the Civil War started, he was appointed to lead the 18th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a bit of an anomaly as he was one of the few Colonels who had actual military experience
- He would lead the regiment, brigade and finally a division at Gettysburg
- He was injured the second day and pulled off the field
- After he recuperated, he was the Military Governor of Norfolk under Butler and then in charge of the prison at Point Lookout, Maryland.
Everything else is a mess.
If you take a look at what most websites describe General Barnes they would do so in the following manner (or worse) “He did not perform well at Gettysburg”.
Unfortunately, with much in the Civil War History, it seems one person writes something and so many others copy and then even more copy the first copiers. In this case, it was a letter to a newspaper from someone who courageously gave their name as Historicus (in itself was a ripoff of a Roman historian) to the New York Herald. The letter was critical of General Meade and several of his generals, while at the same time praised the actions of General Sickles. General Meade was very critical of Sickles in his official report so many have assumed that it was Sickles who wrote the letter.
Since Meade could not prove this, he was advised to let it blow over and be forgotten, unfortunately, most have not forgotten what was in the letter as it has been used against General Barnes for a century and a half.
Civil War Home has a great page on the controversy and I would highly suggest you taking a look at it. You can also view General Barnes’ reply to the Herald
On some other day, I’ll have a better summary but I wanted to give a brief background before sharing something new.
There were several accusations against James Barnes actions, all equally damning. Even so, one that has really irked me is the insuation that Barnes’ division laid down in order to let men willing to fight go forward into the lines:
"An alarming incident, however, occurred. Barnes' division, of the Fifth Corps, suddenly gave way; and Sickles, seeing this, put a battery in position to check the enemy if he broke through this gap on our front, and General Birney was sent to order Barnes back into line. 'No,' he said; 'impossible. It is too hot. My men cannot stand it.' Remonstrance was unavailing, and Sickles dispatched his aides to bring up any troops they met to fill this blank. Major Tremaine, of his staff, fell in with General Zook, at the head of his brigade (Second Corps), and this gallant officer instantly volunteered to take Barnes' place. When they reached the ground, Barnes' disordered troops impeded the advance of the brigade. 'If you can't get out of the way,' cried Zook, 'lie down, and I will march over you.' Barnes ordered his men to lie down, and the chivalrous Zook and his splendid brigade, under the personal direction of General Birney, did march over them and right into the breach. Alas! poor Zook soon fell, mortally wounded, and half of his brigade perished with him."
Barnes would reply in his letter:
All this is pure invention. No such occurrence as is here related took place. There is not a particle of truth in it. No order was given to me by General Birney. None was received by me through any one from General Sickles. I did not see or hear from General Zook. I did not meet him in any way. I did not know he was there, and the article above referred to is the first intimation that I have had that any one pretended that any such event took place. There was no order to advance-no refusal; no order to lie down given to the command by me or by any one else to my knowledge; no passing over my command (I should be sorry to see any body of men attempt to do such a thing in my division); nothing of the kind occurred that ever came to my knowledge, and I think I should have heard of such a thing before this late day if it, or anything like it, had taken place; the whole story is untrue in every particular, and my astonishment at now hearing of such a thing for the first time may possibly be imagined.
Unfortunately Historicus would raise his ugly head again and send a reply to the Herald to answer General Barnes’ defenses:
As General Barnes denies all this roundly, under his own signature, it is proper I should give the names of those who cheerfully came forward to corroborate in every point the facts I stated. I refer General Barnes, first to the letter of General de Trobriand, in the Herald of March 29, where he states that a portion of Barnes' division fell back and took position in his rear, and that in spite of his remonstrance they finally withdrew altogether without being engaged. This confirms what I alleged; but I have positive testimony in a private letter from General Birney, which he will not object I am sure, to my using. When he saw Barnes withdrawing his troops before they had received a shot, he remonstrated at Barnes' leaving a dangerous gap in his line, as well as abandoning the good position. It was of no avail, for Barnes retired. I copied the following from General Birney's letter:-
"He (Barnes) moved to the rear from three to four hundred yards, and formed in the rear of the road which passed from the Emmettsburg Road to the Round Top. When Zook's Brigade, the first one brought to me, came up, Barnes' troops (being in the way) were, at my request, ordered to lie down, and the Brigade from the Second corps passed over their prostrate bodies into the fight, under my command, relieving de Trobriand's left. A portion of the troops of Barnes were afterwards detached and fought splendidly under another commander. I mentioned the conduct of General Barnes to his corps commander General Sykes, and also to General Sedgwick, that night, after the Council; and Sykes told me that Colonel Sweitzer who commanded one of Barnes' Brigades, had reported the same thing."
Soon after General Meade would ask President Lincoln for a Court of Inquiry to clear his actions at the battle. President Lincoln would respond
…It is quite natural that you should feel some sensibility on the subject; yet-I am not impressed, nor do I think the country is impressed, with the belief that your honor demands, or the public interest demands, such an inquiry. The country knows that at all events you have done good service; and I believe it agrees with me that it is much better
And at this point General Meade and General Barnes would stop trying to defend themselves. Unfortunately, so many of the original historians would take Historicus’ letter as the pure truth, it would be repeated by those that would follow.
Unfortunately, President Lincoln was a bit off with this one as it never did quite blow over and history has seemed to take Historicus’ side of the affair as truth and has been repeated so often by so many historians who did not further their research, it has become gospel.
Until one Al M. Gambone would write a book about General Zook - if tomorrow night finds me dead ... The Life of General Samuel K. Zook, Another Forgotten Union Hero (Baltimore, Maryland: Butternut and Blue, 1996) and follow it up with an article on Military History Online DATE WITH DESTINY ... and DISTORTION: The death of Union General Samuel K. Zook where he puts forth the following:
Tradition tells us that as Zook led his men into the Wheatfield, they found the ranks of General Barnes strewn on the ground. That condition caused Zook to holler: "Get out of the way [or] lie down and I'll come over you directly." Barnes' men then reportedly did lie down and Zook's men "did march over them and right into the breach." This entire scenario can only be viewed as typical Civil War hyperbole. Imagine for a moment that you are one of Barnes' men. You are in a thick, blue woolen uniform, men are shooting at you - trying to kill you, you are hot, frightened [or at least worried], you have a loaded rifle and someone is telling you they intend to send men and heavy horses to walk over you. I don't think so! ... [This leads me to my favorite saying ... be careful of that which you read, hear or see about the American Civil War]
Someone in Zook's brigade recorded the following as they actually entered the Wheatfield. This plus all the facts surrounding Zook's access, demonstrate that the earlier entry-story is a figment of Sickles' invention.
... we marched forward to the attack ... alongside the mountain, the tumult was deafening ... We were enveloped in smoke and fire, not only in front, but on our left, and even at times on the right.
So it looks like we have some solid evidence to knock out the troops had to lie down so others could fight and I am quite happy for it.
Granted there are still a lot of other things that need to be looked at, like General Barnes pulling his men off early – but I am taking this one baby step at a time.
Hopefully I’ll be running soon and General Barnes will have a much better reputation and I will be able to sleep a bit better, knowing I was able to help an innocent man.